Broke Meals, Ramen Hacks and Food Snobbery

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Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Not very haute; all kinds of happy.
Last week at work, I ate shitty mall food court Chinese food for lunch. I relished every bite of it. As I walked in the room with that Styrofoam container, several of my coworkers looked on incredulously. They were surprised that I would deign to eat from such a place. I was surprised at their surprise. They called me a food snob. They were being good-natured about it, and I suppose I can see where they were coming from, but it rankled a bit.

It rankled because my attitudes about food have always been about happiness, pleasure, excitement and sharing. It rankled because I've spent a lot of time talking about food with my coworkers, sharing restaurant recommendations and recipes, running the gamut from authentic Japanese Omakase in Ohio, to how to replicate Chik-fil-A sauce. I've cooked for them out of The French Laundry and Alinea Cookbooks, but I've also made them many of the simple, staple meals of my youth, like sausage and sauerkraut. It rankled because I don't think of myself as a snob.

The comment did get me thinking about my history with food, and about how my attitudes have changed over time, shaped by my upbringing and my adult life in equal measure. Through a childhood with three brothers and not a lot of money, to my first few years as a married adult and not a lot of money, thrift has always informed my cooking and eating habits. The ways in which that manifests itself have shifted over time and with changing means, but I'm still the guy who takes every scrap of leftovers (even from fancy restaurants) and who uses every scrap of everything in some way. Don't throw out that 1/4 cup of leftover rice, I'll use that in something!

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How To: Ice Cream Cupcakes

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Photos by Molly Dunn
Miniature ice cream cakes will cool you down in this summer heat.
With the summer heat at its peak, we are all trying to find ways to keep cool. Ice cream is my go-to treat to fight the heat. While making a whole ice cream cake can be a tedious and many times unsuccessful task, decorating cupcakes with ice cream is so much easier.

Here is a simple guide to assembling ice cream cupcakes that have all the same flavors of an ice cream cake without the stress of actually putting a whole cake together.

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Top 5 Kid Birthday Party Food Themes

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Photo courtesy of williams-sonoma.com
Make your child's birthday the best birthday ever.
As a kid, I loved planning my birthday parties. Each year had to be different from the last and it always revolved around a theme. Whether it was a Hawaiian luau at the pool, a popcorn movie night with the girls or a pony ride down the street (it was raining, might I add), I always centered the party around something.

Sometimes it is hard thinking of creative ideas for your child's birthday party, but here are the top five themes -- revolving around food, of course -- to make all the other parents jealous of your kid's birthday party.

5. Pizza-Making Party

Rather than having pizza delivered to your house, have the kids get hands-on with their individual pizzas. Prep the dough ahead of time so that it is ready to be rolled out and decorated (kids will get impatient waiting for the dough to rise). Each kid can wear a chef's hat and apron while he or she creates a personal pizza. It's an Italian adventure kids will love to participate in.

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Pig's Blood, Vegetables and the Perfect Family Meal at Oxheart

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Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
They like it! Hey, Mikey!
Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

I made my elder daughter cry within five minutes of sitting down to dinner at Oxheart. We'd been through all the usual discussions about etiquette and attitude, and were riding high on the success of a recent dinner at Foreign & Domestic in Austin. We were ready for this one. Then, I mentioned the blood paintings.

Just inside the restaurant's front door hangs a series of canvases sparingly decorated with semi-stylized images of vegetables in bright shades of crimson. Carrots, peas, beets, all dipped and drawn in pig's blood. They're lovely and interesting, and they captivated my children's interest immediately.

We'd already been discussing the origin and meaning of Oxheart's name, and it seemed appropriate to explain the artwork's connection to the restaurant's carnal/vegetal themes. As I was describing how the vegetables had been cut and dragged through the blood, used as stamps to create their own images and to further reinforce the simultaneous duality and continuum of the restaurant's character, my daughter gently cupped her face in her hands, hiding the hot but silent tears that had begun sliding down her cheeks.

She's a sure carnivore, but a sensitive one, and she was weeping for the pigs whose lives had been given, whose blood had been spilt for those canvases. Of course, that didn't stop her from eating her share of tĂȘte de cochon later that evening. I think there's something beautiful and somehow appropriate about that.


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Top 5 Snacks I Still Like (But Shouldn't)

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Anything promoted with a slam-dunking kangaroo or a free Transformer pocket toy shouldn't appeal to those over the age of ten, and yet...
Ever look down at your cart and contemplate throwing in a box of baby wipes or kids' sunscreen just so people think you're shopping for children? Some of the snacks I still enjoy as a 20-something-year-old female are just downright embarrassing. At what point will I stop liking this crap? It's not often that I do it, but every now and then, one of these snacks will find its way into my cart, usually hidden under a bulb of adult-friendly romaine or a carton of oh-so-grown-up cherry tomatoes.

I present to you: The Top 5 Snacks I Still Like (But Shouldn't):

5. Handi-Snacks Crackers n' Cheese

Every cool kid knows that by middle school, these snacks should be out of your lunch bag and replaced by something hipper, like a soft pretzel. But even now, I can't seem to stop myself from digging into to this spreadable cheese snack. It's got a separate compartment just for cheese...and a little red stick, for god's sake! How could I resist?

This was most definitely the precursor to my obsession with cheese and crackers. So why is it acceptable for me to eat triple creme brie with black pepper water biscuits, but not a bright-orange, indiscernible blend of processed cheese that I spread onto shitty crackers or dip into using tasteless breadsticks? Is it because the cracker has a face on it? Luckily, they sell these by the 30-pack at Sam's Club, so I can hoard enough for the year in just one awkward trip.

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DEFCON Dining: Escalante's Mexican Restaurant

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Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
You can't see it, but it's there.
Man, the lead-up to the holidays has been filled with an odd combination of periods of cooking frenzy, trying to get caught up on some kitchen projects before year's end, and last-minute dinners, wedged into the hustle and bustle of holiday prep. It doesn't help the madness that my extended family has six birthdays and an anniversary in December.

As I'm sure you can imagine, lots of those "last minute" meals have been based more on location than desire. Especially when dining with kids who have been dragged from store to store for a couple of hours, "don't touch anything" admonishments flying, it's sometimes easiest to just go to whatever restaurant happens to be at hand. The other night, that meant Escalante's.

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What The Hell Do I Do With Unripe Figs?

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Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Ill-gotten figs, boiling in sugar syrup.
This is the first year that both of my kids are in school, and their daily absence has created a bit of a time vacuum for my wife. Rather than go stir-crazy, she has been spending most of her days volunteering at the school. Trading two kids for 20 may not seem like the way to go, but it seems to suit her. Among the many duties she has taken on around the campus, she found herself the chair of the gardening committee, kindly nominated by a friend who vacated the post this year. She doesn't have much of a green thumb, but is endlessly enthusiastic.

Recently, she organized a community work day, and we spent several hours at the school pulling weeds, raking leaves, and removing ridiculous numbers of dead plants (she tried valiantly to save the landscaping, but the drought took its toll). Our kids, who had begged and begged to come along, promising to work hard and not just goof off all day, goofed off all day. Most of their time was spent on the playground, or eating the donuts we had provided for the volunteers. That is, until my eldest discovered the fig trees.

Unbeknownst to me, she diligently denuded three smallish fig trees lining the playground, plucking their tiny green fruits and gathering them in her pocket. She knows I love figs, and has likely overheard my nefarious plots of thievery, aimed at making those schoolyard figs my own. You know, once they had ripened. She held them out to me excitedly. You could almost see the expectation of praise in her eyes, poor thing.

I let her down gently, explaining that the figs weren't ripe, and were probably more or less inedible. She teared up - I think she was mostly upset that she had wasted them - and she implored me to try to do something with them. She's a sensitive soul.

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Cute Alert: Lucky Dog Rescue's 4th Annual Gingerbread Doghouse Fundraiser

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Photo by Stuart Rosenberg
The winning Lucky Dog Gingerbread House, by Julie Busch-Johnson and Liz Sanford Westwood Country Club
Some events just make you go "Aww," or in the case of the Lucky Dog Rescue Gingerbread Doghouse Charity Competition, "P-aww." The popular fourth annual event took place this past Monday night in the Hotel Icon Lounge, drawing dog lovers and families in the spirit of giving and Christmas cheer.

"We are so fortunate to have this annual event - it is a key fundraiser for us to continue our mission and directly affects the number of dogs we're able to save from BARC," said Jodi Eisenhardt, a volunteer and spokesperson for the event. "Every single thing for this event is donated, so we're so grateful to everyone," she continued.

Donations included the gingerbread doghouses entered in the competition, light bites and drinks from the Hotel Icon's new restaurant, Line and Lariat, beer from local beermaker Karbarch brewery, cute, bone-shaped gingerbread favors created by Three Brothers Bakery, the $25 suggested door donation, and funds from the silent auction for each of the gingerbread houses on display. You could also sponsor a dog by selecting one of the puppy-faced Christmas tree ornaments hanging from the "Sponsor" Christmas tree.

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DEFCON Dining: Hubcap Grill

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Photo by Nicholas Hall
Hubcap Grill
I'm not really sure how Hubcap Grill owner Ricky Craig will feel about his DEFCON designation. Despite my feelings on the subject, I'm fairly certain that Hubcap isn't meant to be kid friendly. Not that it's meant to be unfriendly, but something about a gravel yard filled with a ramshackle assortment of discarded lawn furniture, a menu single-mindedly focused on beef and beer, and the almost elegant austerity assembled from those components leads me to believe that my eight year old isn't exactly his target audience.

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DEFCON Dining: Feast

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I didn't order it, but I managed to steal a few bites.
As we mounted the steps to the restaurant, my five-year-old began to have a meltdown. This was not good. We had been anticipating DEFCON 5, and had chosen a restaurant accordingly. She had left her hair-band behind, it seemed, and she was not going to be quiet about it. Sirens blared; my hand hovered over the red button.

As the valet drove off, I tried to calm her down, beseechingly asking my wife if she might have something -- anything -- in her purse with which I could put the girl's hair up. A quick search turned up nothing, and I turned to bribes. The hostess was starting to eye us through the windows in the door, wondering if we she was going to have to deal with this rag-tag band of crying kids and harried, frantic parents. I offered my blackberry as condolence, its sole Windows 95 era brick-breaking game my last gambit in the war for a decent meal.

She took the bait, sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve, and we were in the door. The hostess seemed less than thrilled to see us, eyeing the still quietly snuffling child suspiciously. I smiled with what I hoped was a look of reassurance on my face, and half promised/half hoped: "She'll be fine now." She seemed convinced; her expression changing to one of warmth, and she showed us to our table.

We had decided semi-last minute to go to dinner for the last night of Houston Restaurant Weeks, and Feast was our destination. In a show of gratitude for the slightly ridiculous amount of work I had done in recent weeks, my boss had told me to take the family out to dinner. I figured a HRW meal was a pretty good option. I'd sent my wife a link to the HRW website, pointing out a few promising options, and she'd responded, almost immediately, "Feast."

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